13 October 2017

American Gun Mythology and the Role of the Writer

--Thomas Pluck

It's been a little over a week since once of the worst massacres in the history of the United States committed by a civilian. And there's been a lot of talk about "what could have been done" to stop him. Because it's nearly always a him, but that's another can of worms. Once the shooting began, there was little anyone could have done. The terrorist chose a high vantage point. He moved between two windows. He set up cameras in the hallway to alert him, and fired at the door once security arrived, and killed himself.

The Internet tough guys are out in force saying that "if only..." If only what? Anyone in Nevada who wants a gun can get a gun. They have extremely lax gun laws. The crowd was not disarmed. More guns would not have saved anyone, short of having snipers at every public event. Which I am sure, will be suggested as a solution by the arms dealer lobby of the NRA, over sensible legislation for consumer ownership of military hardware.

I am a gun owner. I live in one of the states with the strictest gun laws, and I do not think they are enough. But I don't want to talk about gun control. I know I'm not going to change your mind, and you're not going to change mine.

And besides, what can writers do?

For one, we can stop promoting gun mythology. Guns are not the only solution to a problem. They are not magic wands. You don't get to decide if they wound or kill your target. You can try, but the bullet decides if it will nick the femoral artery and make that "leg wound in the meaty part of the thigh" bleed you out. The bullet decides if that shoulder wound passes through "just the muscle" ... and kills the baby in the woman's arms behind your thriller protagonist who started a gun battle on a crowded street. We perpetuate the myth of the gun as a protective talisman. It won't protect you.

After all, it's only a tool. "It is the hard heart that kills," as Gunny Hartmann would say. Sometimes it's the frightened heart that kills. I nearly shot a friend of mine one night thinking he was an intruder. I had been taught firearm safety. It was nearly not enough to save my friend's life. I train in self-defense with and without weapons. The majority of this training is to commit actions to muscle memory, because humans do not perform well under stress without such training. Yet some characters is cool as a cucumber in battle, never misses a beat, and the gun saves the day.

Horse puckey.

That's what that is.

Ask any officer about gun retention training and the "21 foot rule." That's the distance a determined individual can cross while the average officer clears their holster and readies their sidearm. It takes a little over or under a second. I've trained it. I'm a big, slow guy, but unless you're Quick-Draw McGraw, I'm going to flatten you like a rhino chasing an ice cream truck before you can get a bead on center mass. And yet, I recently read an otherwise fine novel where the protagonist shoots two armed people, one who has a battle rifle, with his .45, during a conversation. He's dead-eye dick. Never misses. And they never get off a shot. I kept reading, but this was a story that bought into our mythology about guns. Another fine novel had a character shoot four security guards "in the leg" and you know what I just said about that. This isn't Terminator 2. Those men will die or live in pain for the rest of their lives, but it's played off as merciful. It served to make the character seem a bad-ass and start things off with high tension, but all I could think of was four guys in physical therapy because that was the best the writer could do.

“We don’t sensationalize guns,” he said. “Society sensationalizes guns.”
“Have you ever watched a movie with guns and violence in it?” he continued. “Have you ever played Call of Duty, or any video game where there is shooting involved? I haven’t heard one person who said ‘no’.” --owner of Machine Gun Vegas, who advocates for stronger gun control.

Is it possible to write violence without glorifying it? Filmmaker Francois Truffaut said that it's impossible to make an anti-war film because the excitement onscreen inevitably glorifies it. I'm not so sure. Fury by David Ayers stripped me of any desire to fight in World War II. When historians and pundits opine that they never got to fight in a war, they sound like petulant children. Are they really listening to veterans? My great-uncles, before they died, confided in me about cowardly acts during wartime without shame. Because they survived. Another cried for the Germans he killed, because "they were just doing what I was doing." And yet Couch Colonels want to see millions suffer so they can get medals? If historians are pushing this sociopathic garbage, what hope do we who deal in fiction have?

Here's an interesting anecdote from John McTiernan, the director of Predator, on "gun pornography":
There were some studio types who were basically into gun pornography. They wanted to sell gun pornography. They said I wasn’t doing enough close-ups of guns and stuff. So I said, “Why don’t I just do a whole scene?” But I also made it one that had something to do with the story, because all of these guys have giant guns and the whole point is that they’re helpless in the face of this monster. That’s the whole point of the story. They’re these enormously, heavily-armed guys, and they’re not prepared for this. So the whole point was, we hit nothing. But it also got rid of the gun pornographers because I gave them five minutes of nothing but guns. So they were quiet after that. - From this interview at Cinephilia & Beyond.

Violence will always be a subject for storytelling. Nature is brutal, and we are part of it. But we must look past the logic of the victor, the survivor, who looks back as if this was destined, just, and the only solution at hand. That's a defense mechanism. "I had to kill him. It was him or me."

In self-defense, we laugh at this. You couldn't cross the street? Shut the door and call 911? You had to stand your ground? Were you defending your life or your "honor"? We say the best defense weapon is a good pair of running shoes. If you must strike, you hit until they are down and escape if you can. Because people have friends. Even jerks who want to rob you or push you around have friends. And they may not like how you kicked their friend when they were down because it felt good to show that jerk who dared to threaten you what they get for besmirching your honor.

How many stories play fast and loose to give us a villain who simply must be killed? They won't give up! They have no fear of death. The endless henchmen who file into John Wick's house made me laugh. I mean, no one thought to toss a few Molotov cocktails and burn his house down? Or tell the boss to engage in aerial intercourse with a rolling pastry, then head home? Not saying you should feel bad about liking the movie, it was good entertainment, but it's the kind of fantasy we take for granted. The kind of fantasy that makes internet tough guys think they could hit a sniper on the 32nd floor, or make it past his machine-gun nest to get to his hotel room and get him.

No, the bad guy thought of that. The hotel room door was found riddled with bullets. Just enough time for the terrorist to take out "a large, silver revolver--probably his favorite, I wonder what he named it?--and blow his own brains out. As planned.

So how do we not glorify violence? By showing the consequences. By not going Shakespeare on our characters' behinds, and killing them off for convenience. You might think this is death for a pulp story, but Billy Jack laid a whuppin' on the bad guys and he was a pacifist. He was so kind he took off his cowboy boots before he kicked you in the face. Your bad-ass heroine can learn Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and use arm locks. Your super-agent can be tired of assassination and use the defensive aspects of tai chi. Or be a boxer who simply sidesteps and slips punches and gets out of there. If you've never seen a pro boxer dodge punches by street thugs and amateurs like myself, it is really funny. You can't hit those guys! Just ask Connor MacGregor...

I would've been much more impressed with the scene I mentioned earlier if instead of shooting the guards, he disarmed them. That's still violent, your trigger finger often gets broken when a gun is wrenched out of your hands, but I'll take a finger splint over a lifelong limp. But this is nitpicking, really. It's the big pictures that matter. Are our villains human, or caricatures? Are guns tools, or dei ex machina? Is violence an easy solution that gives us a place to end the story, or is it a trauma that affects the characters for the rest of their lives? And I don't mean one that's solved by all those whiskies they drink without seeming to be affected, but that's a third can of worms, and that's my limit.

These are questions we have to ask when we write a story.
Because stories matter.

2 comments:

janice law said...

You make excellent points.
And there is a role for writers, as you mention. Even in mysteries, alternatives to violence and opportunities to defuse confrontations exist.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Interesting points. Well done.
When my first novel was published I did not have the cop shoot the killer. The cop did what we homicide detectives do nearly all the time when we solve a murder. The murderer was arrested and put in jail wihout a shot fired. Caught criticism for that. Also for not describing the detective's gun except to call it a magnum. Readers want specific details, especially about guns. I guess I've been guilty of describing guns in my mysteries. Sam Spade did not shoot anyone in THE MALTESE FALCON, although there is gunplay. America is a gun society. Wish it was not.
Have to think about all this, don't I?